Despite growing support for medical marijuana among state legislators and other Kentuckians, a measure that would let people use the drug to treat serious health problems has received a terminal diagnosis for the 2018 lawmaking session.
House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne, R-Prospect, confirmed this week that there is no chance of House Bill 166 — a measure that would legalize medical marijuana — passing this session, which ends April 14.
HB 166 was sponsored by a bipartisan group of 25 state lawmakers and would let qualifying patients diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition — such as multiple sclerosis, seizures, or cancer — legally use marijuana as long as they (and the businesses selling the drug) adhere to certain restrictions.
Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville, who sponsored the bill and worked to tweak it to gain more legislative support, said Thursday that there is no hope for the bill becoming law right now.
“I think unfortunately the clock has run out, but we are regrouping, and we’re going to redouble our efforts for next session,” Nemes said. “This is something that needs to pass. Kentucky’s ready for it.”
The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony in early March on the bill but voted to pass it over. At the time, Nemes said he wanted to make changes that could help the measure gain enough support in the committee to move forward.
Weeks later, the bill remains in the Judiciary Committee, where it hasn’t come back for a fresh vote.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, recently accused the House’s Republican leadership of holding the bill hostage.
But the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Rep. Joe Fischer, said the group’s members already voted on HB 166 when they passed over it.
Fischer, who has the power to set the committee’s meeting agendas, said last month that he hadn’t seen any amendments to the original proposal, though Nemes told Courier Journal this week that he helped develop a substitute version that addressed concerns that had been raised.
Nemes pointed out that the Judiciary Committee had a massive workload in terms of bills to review. He also said he thinks there just wasn’t enough support in the House to move the medical marijuana proposal forward yet. But he sees a rising interest among legislators in legalizing the drug for patients’ use.
“The issue has more momentum than it ever has before, and it’s just picking up more steam,” he said.
Jaime Montalvo, executive director of the nonprofit organization Kentuckians for Medicinal Marijuana, also said medical marijuana has a good shot at passing during the 2019 session, which begins next January.
He believes the legislature’s failure to legalize it this spring could affect lawmakers’ re-election chances this fall. (All 100 House seats and half of the Senate’s seats are on the ballot.)
“I think our chances are even better next year. There is overwhelming support, and Frankfort is going to have to do something,” Montalvo said. “They’re going to be forced to do it, and I think they’ll be forced even more if they see that seats are being turned because of this subject.”
Michael Raus, founder of Kentucky BlueGrass Cannabis LLC, has advocated for HB 166 and said it languished in committee because House leadership wouldn’t let a new-and-improved version of the measure get a vote.
“It died because leadership wouldn’t let it out of committee,” he said.
Failing to legalize medical marijuana this spring delays the launch of a lucrative new industry that would create high-paying jobs throughout Kentucky, said Raus, who plans to hire new employees for his business if and when it does become legal.
Raus criticized the legislature’s decision to pass a tax reform bill this spring while keeping the House’s medical marijuana measure on ice. This doesn’t just prevent Kentucky from gaining a new source of revenue, he said, it keeps Kentuckians suffering from serious illnesses from getting the treatment they need.
“It has a tremendous impact on the people who desperately need a non-pharmaceutical option to treat the diseases and conditions that they have,” he said.
Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, said some lawmakers, himself included, are still conflicted over whether to support medical marijuana.
A key concern of his is whether approving medical marijuana could exacerbate the substance abuse problems already plaguing Kentucky, especially if people find ways to use it recreationally instead of for treatment. (Proponents of medical marijuana argue it would help combat the opioid crisis by giving people suffering from pain an alternative to addictive prescription medications.)
Despite his and other legislators’ concerns, Schickel said it’s plausible a medical marijuana bill could pass in 2019.
“Well, the momentum is definitely in the direction of medical marijuana,” he said. “I am wrestling with it and I’m open to the conversation, and I have not closed my mind to it because I think there are powerful, legitimate arguments in favor of it.”
By: Morgan Watkins, Courier Journal